Monday, February 27, 2012

Two by Tursten: Detective Inspector Huss and Night Rounds

Soho Press, 2003
originally published as Den krossade tanghästen
translated by Steven T. Murray
371 pp
(trade paper ed.)

I bought this book nearly three years ago; now there's another Soho edition out with a spiffy new cover which is more modern than on my edition, much more hip and more up to date than the one I have:

  But a book is much more than its cover, and that is definitely the case with Detective Inspector Huss. 

This book  is the first in a series of nine books, only four of which so far have been translated to English: this one, Night Rounds, which just came out but which is actually book two in the series; The Torso, book three and The Glass Devil, book five. Book four, Cold Murder or Kallt mord has not yet been published in English, so hopefully with the continuing surge of  interest in Scandinavian crime fiction, Tursten's readers will not be kept waiting long.   I'd put this book up against any good Scandinavian crime fiction novel -- it's got a credible plot with a good mystery wrapped around it, believable characters, and as always, concerns about contemporary issues are embedded within the story.  It falls within the category of police procedural, and although I might disagree somewhat with the blurb on my cover calling the book "Sweden's Prime Suspect,” there is very little fault for readers to find in this novel.

Detective Inspector Irene Huss works in the Violent Crimes division of the Göteborg Police.  She is married to Krister, a chef in a popular and trendy restaurant in the city and has twin daughters.  Irene is a martial arts expert, a 10-cup a day coffee drinker and seasoned police officer, who lately finds herself trying hard not to become "jaded or cynical."  Her current home worries center on her daughter, who has a new boyfriend who convinces her to play in a skinhead band and to shave off her hair. But her home situation has to fade into the background for a bit while she investigates a new case: a very prominent financier has plummeted to his death off the balcony of his building. At first glance, it seems likely that it’s a suicide, but the medical examiner finds evidence that points to murder.  While starting their investigation into the death of Richard von Knecht, the 8-person investigative team soon finds itself  in the middle of another crime: someone has bombed the building where von Knecht had his office, and a dead and unrecognizable body has been found there.  With a multitude of suspects from which to choose, and possible links into the shady and violent world of the drug trade, the case seems to grow bigger as time goes on.  As the detectives seem to get closer to a solution, not only is their case thrown into a frenzy, but a series of clues lead some of them into a potentially deadly situation.

The novel's good points outweigh any negatives in the narrative. Its merging storylines provide an overall plausible plot which is easy for the reader to follow.  There are several red herrings scattered here and there throughout the story, keeping the reader guessing while the detectives do their work.  Irene Huss is a most believable character, a woman who tries to juggle home and work life, not always successfully, especially when her cop instincts take over at home and are resented by one of her daughters. Luckily she's got a great husband, and the home routine runs smoothly even though they often have working hours that don't match.  Tursten's portrayal of Irene Huss allows for inner angst over her daughters without letting it spill out in too many places in the story and not interfering too much with police work.  The other characters, especially those working in the Violent Crimes division, are also credible -- while they work together well for the most part, there are sometimes personality conflicts and friction between some of the team members. Within this framework, the author sets up room for discussion regarding sexual harassment in the work place, as well as the response of the higher-ups who do not exactly condone this harassment but who also do not set it as a high priority to be taken care of in any meaningful way. Tursten also explores the issue of illegal immigrants, looking at it from both sides, leading into a meaningful examination of why teens in general are attracted to gangs like Skinheads, which the author sees as a symptom of the ills of modern society.  And finally, she tackles the heartbreaking subject of AIDS, weaving it seamlessly and intelligently into the story.

The only major drawback I found in this book was that it wasn't long until I figured out the who in one of the crimes; from the clues it's really not that difficult to figure it out. The other I never had pegged, and trying to get to the solution made it impossible to put the book down.

Considering that Detective Inspector Huss  is the introduction to a series, it's very well done, ultimately very satisfying and intelligently written.  Tursten hits the ground running, and I can say that I've now finished the second novel Night Rounds, the pace doesn't let up in the next installment either. I would recommend this book very highly, not just for readers of Scandinavian crime fiction, but for crime fiction readers in general, as well as those who like credible and strong women characters in the lead role.


Soho Press, 2012
originally published as Nattrond
Translated by Laura A. Wideburg
326 pp
(hard cover ed.)

Although this book has just recently been published in English, it is actually number two in the Irene Huss series, and was originally published in 1999.  I have to admit that my interest level rose off the scale having only read the prologue of this novel, with the following bit of conversation:

" ' ...It was that nurse I saw' "
" 'Oh, for ...!' He swallowed the curse. 'The woman in this photo has been dead for fifty years!' "
" 'I know. But it was her!' "

Cue dramatic, ghostly music. Cut to the next chapter, in a hospital in the middle of a complete power outage, where the night nurse is on the way back to her station after helping the doctor on call with a patient whose alarm has gone off in the darkness. Sadly, the lack of power to the patient's respirator leads to his death.  Technically the ICU nurse should have taken charge, but she seems to have gone missing.  Looking through the window of the ward door, in the available moonlight, the night nurse sees a woman dressed in an old nurse's uniform, and recognizes her as the ghost of Nurse Tekla, who hanged herself in the attic some fifty years earlier and has supposedly haunted the hall ever since.

When the police and emergency services are called, a horrifying discovery is made: the missing nurse is lying dead in the electrical room, the victim of human, rather than spectral hands.  As the investigation gets rolling, another nurse goes missing. Are the two events connected? Where is the missing nurse? And what, if anything, does a suicide fifty years earlier have to do with this crime? When the Violent Crimes Division gets down to work, Irene Huss ultimately realizes that there are many interconnected and complicated relationships involving people in and around the hospital, and that sorting through all of them to get to the solution to current events may require an investigation into the past.

There are some good qualities that are brought out in Tursten's writing here.  First there is the balance between Irene's home and work life; having two teenaged daughters is not easy for any mom, let alone a mom whose job takes center stage. This time she must deal with one of the twins who goodheartedly takes on the cause of animal rights, only to discover that she's fallen in with a crowd that prefers violence as their method of communication.  How Irene rises to the occasion is an interesting story in and of itself.  There is also the author's focus on issues she obviously feels are important scattered throughout the novel: the ongoing sexual harassment issue at the police station, the perception towards immigrants, and a bit about the problems of the homeless and the mentally ill.  As in the previous novel, Tursten brings these issues to the fore without dwelling on them for any length of time that is not appropriate to the story, so the reader never gets the feeling that she's being preachy.  Finally, the whole ghost thing was a good hook to draw the reader in, whet his or her appetite and then get on with the story.

There is, however, one very glaring flaw (imho) in this story, and it has to do with a key piece of evidence that the police had all along that is obviously ignored at the time it's presented to the team. The detectives did not act on it until much later, even though the reader knows it must be important.  Had Huss and her team  been as quick to jump on it as they did with other evidence in their possession, they probably could have progressed much further in the case sooner than they did. This time I figured out much of the story early on, but then again, watching how the police unravel this complicated plot in an intelligent manner is why I read these books anyway.

I liked this book, although truth be told, probably not as much as the first book in the series, which is a bit unusual for me. So far, I'm liking this series, and I'm really bummed that I'm gearing up to read The Torso and will have to figure out what I missed in the hole between that book and The Glass Devil by the time I get to it. I hope this series does well in translation so that the other books will be published as well.  I can definitely recommend Night Rounds to readers of Scandinavian crime fiction, police procedurals and crime fiction in general.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Temporary Perfections, by Gianrico Carofiglio; the wall and where do I go from here?

Bitter Lemon Press, 2011
originally published as Le perfezioni provvisorie, 2010
translated by Anthony Shugaar
284 pp
(trade paper ed.)

I've hit that all-too familiar wall of finishing all of the books currently offered in a series; I'm at that place where there's nothing to do but hope for more in the near future.  It used to be that this kind of break really bugged me and actually made me a bit sad for a while,  but as I've gotten older and as my TBR pile has become rather huge (thanks mostly  to Maxine at Petrona  and Karen at EuroCrime), I have plenty to read while I wait not so patiently.   The problem is that having now come to the end of all of the published Guerreri novels by Carofiglio, I have no clue where to go next in my reading. These books are well written, have a great depth of character -- seriously, how can you not love a man who has a punching bag as a silent therapist? -- and appeal to my need for intelligent  fiction, traits that I look for in any book, especially in crime-based novels. Carofiglio and Guido Guerrieri are both tough acts to follow -- and right now I'm hoping I have something on the shelves that measures up.  Any suggestions are most welcome.

Now to the book:  Temporary Perfections finds Guerrieri taking on the role of investigator outside of his legal practice.  A student named Manuela Ferraro has disappeared, and through her parents' attorney, Guido is hired to try to pick up her trail after the official channels have all been exhausted.   This is not a role in which Guerrieri is comfortable, but he agrees to do it all the same.  Her ex-boyfriend's attorney forbids him to speak to Guerrieri, and when Guido talks to her reluctant friends, he senses they're holding things back.  His job is not going to be easy and he knows it, especially with Manuela's friend Caterina, who has her own agenda.

Guerrieri has come a long way since events in Reasonable Doubts -- he now has associates in his new office, but he's still a lonely guy, who feels like his "emotional life is like a silent movie."  He shares his thoughts with his punching bag, the "perfect therapist," who "never judges," "listens, and never interrupts."  His nocturnal ramblings take him to a bar where he runs into an ex-client, a former prostitute named Nadia whose , and he finds in her someone to discuss movies, books and life.  

Once again, Carofiglio has given his readers an intelligent read.  As always, even the characters who seem to have only minor roles play a big part in helping to explain how Guerrieri understands human nature as well as himself.  There is also a continuing dialogue throughout this and  all of the novels in the series about the Italian system of justice and crime, and the sense of place takes you away for a while,  whether Guerrieri's  in Bari, along the coast at a seaside restaurant,  or in Rome as he gets the clichéd thrill of climbing the Spanish Steps. 

I can't really do this or any of the other books real justice in only a few paragraphs; these are novels you have to experience for yourself.  They are not wild rides but should appeal to anyone who is looking for a higher  level of intelligence in his or her choice of books, or to people who care about the development of character throughout a series. 

Such a great series! My thanks to Bitter Lemon Press for making these available to the English-speaking public. Ciao, but just for now, Guido.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Reasonable Doubts, by Gianrico Carofiglio

Bitter Lemon Press, 2007
originally published as Ragionevoli dubbi, 2006
translated by Howard Curtis
249 pp
(trade paper ed.)

Carofiglio just keeps getting better, as Reasonable Doubts, book number three in this series,  proves.   While this book certainly has the makings of a good mystery contained within the story, Carofiglio continues his tradition of giving his character top billing rather than the crime.  The focus on the internal  life of Guido Guerrieri is a hallmark of all of the books in this series, but there is also enough tension rising external to Guerrieri's thoughts so that everything comes together to make an interesting and compelling story.  Yet, as is the case in all three books so far, when all is said and done, it is the character of Guerrieri himself that is the draw.

The novel opens with the case of Fabio Paolicelli, convicted some time back for crossing the border with 40 kilos of cocaine hidden within the body of the car, now in prison after having signed a confession of guilt.  Now he wants to appeal his conviction, and after hearing other convicts in prison discussing which defense lawyers are the worst and the best, Paolicelli decides it's got to be Guido Guerrieri.   As it just so happens, Guerrieri is already familiar with Paolicelli -- when Guido was just a boy, Fabio and his group of thugs accosted him, ordering him to remove his coat, beating him up when he wouldn't.  The whole episode left him humiliated, and he vowed to get back at Paolicelli some day.  Now Paolicelli needs his help, and Guerrieri is ready to tell him he can't take the case, but then  he meets Paolicelli's gorgeous half-Japanese wife Natsu Kawabata.  To be fair to Guerrieri, there are also some  facts about Paolicelli's case that bother him, especially Fabio's first attorney, Corrado Macri, whom Natsu was persuaded to hire by a total stranger.  While trying to lay the scene for setting up reasonable doubts regarding Paolicelli's case, Guerrieri is also dwelling on the ones in his own life.

This time around there is a bit more of a mystery component than in the previous two, although there are some loose ends left by the end of the book.  If this were just another novel of crime fiction, a reader might be a tad upset, but Carofiglio's energy is mainly (and wisely) directed toward character, followed by the legal system in Italy, and the ins and outs of the courtroom trial. 

I totally recommend the entire series, starting with Involuntary Witness.  If you were to come into the life of Guido Guerrieri having only read this book, you've really missed out on watching his character develop, and that would be a shame. Not only might you be a bit lost, but you would not have had the pleasure of watching Carofiglio's writing get better and better over time. And that would be a crime!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

I can play European dvds now! Help -- I need suggestions for crime fiction shows!

After drooling over European bloggers' posts about what they're watching on television, I decided that I really needed a dvd player that's not limited to playing region 1 dvds (U.S. only).  So I finally bought one and now I'm ready to start watching. 

If anyone has a suggestion about any crime-fiction shows you'd recommend, please drop it in the box (leave a comment).  Any ideas are welcome!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Walk in the Dark, by Gianrico Carofiglio

Bitter Lemon Press, 2006
originally published as Ad occhi chiusi
translated by Howard Curtis
215 pp (trade paper ed.)

Continuing with book two in Carofiglio's most excellent series, time and Guido Guerrieri have both moved along some two years since the events of the previous novel, Involuntary Witness.  Now Guerrieri is in a comfortable relationship, he's started cooking, and has recently been mulling over the fact that he's approaching middle age.  In his professional life, he is serving as attorney to a woman who has pressed charges against her former boyfriend.  Martina Fumai now lives at a secret refuge for battered women, protected by a gorgeous, kickass nun, and has had enough of the regular abuse and stalking she's suffering at the hands of Dr. Gianluca Scianatico.  She's been to other lawyers, who've all turned down the job -- Scianatico is the son of a very powerful judge, and is also  "a one-time Fascist thug, a poker player. And a cokehead."  No other attorney will take Martina as a client because of their fear of the consequences to their careers. But after hearing from Sister Claudia just how desperate Martina's situation has been, Guido can't help himself and agrees to help. Berating himself at first for getting finding "a jam to get into," Guerrieri's anxiety quickly  turns into annoyance because of Scianatico's bragged-about protected status, and he's off.  Information uncovered at the trial leads him to try and discover what he can about Martina's past, inevitably leading him into closer proximity with Sister Claudia.

One thing I've picked up about Carofiglio's writing over these two books  is that he does an excellent job of striking a balance between the Guerrieri of the courtroom and Guerrieri the person.  This balance is also reflected within the plot -- there's a more action-based storyline set off against Guido's inner issues.  For example, as Guerrieri is wrestling with his feelings about the death of an old friend's wife and his uncertainties about middle age, flashback sequences reveal another character's horrible childhood experience.  Throughout the story, the message is clear:  sitting around and waiting for something  to  happen never gets you anywhere -- sometimes you  just have to jump in, with both eyes closed if necessary,  and take control.   

While this story may not appeal to those who want a bit more of an adrenaline rush while they read, it's perfect for readers who like realistic characters and intelligent writing.  A Walk in the Dark has a bit more action than its predecessor, an ending that will satisfy, and yet it is never over the top in its execution.  Carofiglio is such an efficient writer that the reader gets into Guerrieri's mind quickly and easily, while simultaneously being sucked into the courtroom drama.   Even better, the story is totally complete by the end of the book -- there are no loose ends left hanging anywhere. 

 I LOVE this series and highly recommend it.  Happily I have two more to read right away.

 I ask you:  is it possible to have a crush on a  fictional character???

Monday, February 13, 2012

Involuntary Witness, by Gianrico Carofiglio

Bitter Lemon Press, 2005
originally published as Testimone inconsapevole, 2002
translated by Patrick Creagh
274 pp (trade paper ed.)

Involuntary Witness  is the first novel in Carofiglio's  series featuring attorney Guido Guerrieri.  Currently there are four books -- this one, A Walk in the Dark, Reasonable Doubts,  and Temporary Perfections.  Having never read any of these before and just on the heels of the most current Camilleri novel (and the tv series as well), I'm content right now to continue my sojourn in Italy and to try authors who are new to me from this country.   This may be one of the first books of crime fiction I've read where there is definitely crime, it's definitely fiction, but there's no case per se to solve.  Instead, what happens in this book is something totally different than most books written in this genre. Rather than focusing on any sort of police procedure or getting into the head of any criminal or cop,  Involuntary Witness is the story of Guido Guerrieri, an attorney located in Italy; it's a peek inside the complicated judicial system, and it also offers a look at attitudes toward immigrants to that country.  Put all of that together, and throw in some excellent prose, and a stunning novel emerges.

Guerrieri lives and works in Bari, a coastal city  just above the country's boot heel, pretty much due east from Naples. After ten years, Guido and his wife have separated and while some people in this situation tend to throw themselves into their work and try to move on, he's having a very difficult time.  His depression and anxiety are taking their toll and he's moving through his days as though someone has flipped his personal autopilot switch.  He cannot even pretend to be interested in the issues his clients bring to his office, and wonders if it's going to be like this from now on.  But in the midst of all of this gloom, he gets a visit from a woman who has her own problems.   Her name is Abajeje, and she wants to hire Guerrieri to take on the case of a Senegalese who sells fake purses, etc. along the beach.  Abdou is potentially facing life in prison for the murder of a young boy, a murder he says he absolutely did not commit.    Abajeje believes in his  innocence and needs Guido to stand up for him in court; he is her last hope after earlier lawyers basically sat by and did nothing, taking money raised for Abdou's defense in the meantime.    The case as it stands seems hopeless, but Guerrieri agrees to take it on.   He has no witnesses, but is determined to find justice for his client somehow.  How is he going to pull this off?

 For most of the novel, Involuntary Witness is actually more of a character study, introducing readers to Guerrieri, following him through his time of crisis, and watching him emerge out of darkness into a different person, making the quotation by Laozi (or as most people know this ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu -- 老子) at the beginning of the novel highly appropriate:  "What the caterpillar thinks is the end of the world, the rest of the world calls a butterfly." But what also comes out of this book is a stunning courtroom performance where Guerrieri has little or nothing in the way of evidence to prove his client's innocence other than his commitment to the truth.  Carofiglio also examines racist attitudes and anti-immigrant sentiment in a very open and honest manner.

Had someone told me that there is very little in the way of crime solving in this novel and that it rested mainly on the character of a depressed attorney who has trouble making it through the day without bursting into tears, I may have given it a pass in favor of much more meaty crime fiction.  But once I launched into the story, I had to keep going and couldn't put the book down until the last page. No, there's not the usual crime-fiction fare here; no, there's not much action going on; and no, there's not much focus on investigative technique. On the other hand, the insights into the judicial and legal systems, the attention to racism and the amazing courtroom scenes should more than make up for what's NOT here enough to keep any reader satisfied.   If those reasons aren't enough, Carofiglio is an amazing writer who manages to set you on the path of Guerrieri's journey, keep you there, and blow you away by the end of the book.  And considering that this is only the first novel, I'm sure the rest of the books have the potential to be even better.

If you only want the standard crime-fiction fare and put action ahead of  character, this may not be the right book for you. I've seen this book classified as a legal thriller, but that's not exactly right either.  On the flip side, if you're looking for solid writing, a character who is credible largely because he is so human, and  if you want some sterling moments of drama, you should consider giving this book a try.  Sometimes less is more, which is definitely the case here.  Highly recommended.

crime fiction from Italy

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Death in August, by Marco Vichi

Hodder & Stoughton, 2011 (UK)
originally published as Il Commissario Bordelli, 2002
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
207 pp.
(hardcover ed.)

The first installment in Marco Vichi's series featuring Inspector Bordelli of Florence, Death in August takes its reader back to the 1960s (1963 to be exact), and a very hot and mosquito-laden summer.  Pretty much everyone has left town for the seaside, but someone has to man the store, so Bordelli stays behind.  He is soon called to the scene of a rather odd death -- an elderly woman has been found dead in her bed, and the doctor says that she died to an asthma attack, brought on by a severe allergic reaction. Strangely, the bottle of medicine she normally used is sitting on her bedside table, cap screwed on tightly.  Bordelli knows this was no ordinary death by natural causes, and sets out to find out who is responsible.  He has his suspicions, but everyone seems to have an alibi for the time of death, which the doctor feels is accurate.  It's not going to be an easy case for Bordelli at all.

Although the mystery is solid and the crime's solution itself is a bit perplexing, it takes Bordelli forever to solve it.  Actually, that's not so much due to the work of Il Commissario, but of his creator, Marco Vichi.  He spends a great deal of time developing atmosphere, setting and his characters, so that the story is more focused on all of these elements rather than on the crime itself.  And he does give his readers an interesting cast of people -- there's a scientist who spends his time coming up with crazy inventions that will never sell, a trattoria owner whose dishes tend to swim in fat, a burglar with a passion for dance, and others who seem just as offbeat.  Then there's Bordelli himself -- a policeman with a great deal of compassion, something he learned from his father's experiences in the war (memories of which still hang over Italy like the cloying heat of the summer and clouds of mosquitoes) against the Nazis.  He is not averse to hiring ex-cons or helping them out with a couple of thousand lire here and there, hoping that they won't have to go back to a life of crime. 

Normally the first novel in a crime fiction/mystery series is a bit iffy because most of the elements mentioned above tend to be glossed over in favor of getting the crime solved, but in this book, it's a vice-versa situation.  There's so much character development and foundation laying that the reader really doesn't get a good handle on Bordelli's detection abilities, so that even though the solution to the crime is a bit ingenious, there's not a whole lot of buildup to getting there. For crime fiction readers who want their fix of detection and a buildup of clues and suspects, it's a bit of a letdown.  Hopefully the author will rectify the situation in following installments of the series.

There's one more thing worth mentioning, and that is a scene in the novel where Bordelli is reflecting back to a time in his childhood where (and there's no getting around just laying it out straight) he's being sexually abused by a girl charged with taking care of him.  The author paints it like it's not a big deal, and I'm sorry -- that's just not right. Granted it hearkens back to building Bordelli's character, but really.  That is not only not cool, but it was quite unnecessary.  Perhaps it's asking too much, but I would have thought the editors might have had some concerns about leaving that part in.

While I thought the scene-setting and the character development was done pretty well, and I enjoyed the compassionate side of the main character, the mystery aspect just sort of fell flat for me.  If this is supposed to be a mystery novel (and this is confirmed by the subtitle: "The First Inspector Bordelli Mystery"),  the author needs to amp up the crime, add a longer list of suspects and give his readers something they can sink their teeth into.  But once again, as I scan its ratings all over the internet, the book is getting 4-star ratings in multiple places, is being highly recommended by many people.  So perhaps I'm much more of a demanding crime-fiction reader than most people and I'm being a bit picky.  I've just bought the second book in the series, so hopefully since we already know so much about Bordelli (probably a little bit too much, actually), the next installment will focus more on the crime.

crime fiction from Italy

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Potter's Field, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin, 2011
originally published as Il Campo del Vasaio, 2008
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
277 pp. (trade paper)

The Potter's Field is the latest in Camilleri's adventures featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano, coming in  at book number thirteen in the series.  According to Wikipedia, there are three more already written, waiting to be translated.  Good. I'm not quite ready for the series to end just yet.  

Montalbano has a lot on his plate in this installment.  First, he is called to a crime scene in the middle of the pouring rain, where a man who sells clay from his land to local artists has discovered a body in a bag.   When the police examine the bag, they find that the body has been dismembered and the face bashed in beyond recognition.  While waiting for the forensics experts to do their job, he faces his second challenge: a drop-dead gorgeous and very alluring woman comes to the Vigata station to report that her husband, Giovanni Alfano, seems to be missing.  Dolores Alfano shows Salvo a note written by Giovanni, which she swears was not from him.  She is sure that he boarded the ship, and wants Salvo to make some inquiries.  Third, Mimi Augello has become absolutely unbearable in the office, and evidently at home as well -- Salvo receives a call from Livia, who after having spoken to Beba Augello, berates Salvo for keeping Mimi out on late-night stakeouts.  The problem is that Mimi hasn't been involved in any stakeouts whatsoever.  Throw in the Mafia, a television reporter who dislikes Montalbano, and a woman who will only cooperate with monarchists, and it all adds up to one heck of a dilemma.

While Camilleri brings his usual wit and wisdom to this novel, even at one point introducing a book into Salvo's library by Andrea Camilleri (which, by the way, just happens to shed a bit of light on the case),  the overarching theme running throughout the story is that of betrayal.  From the potter's field where the body is found (the location heralding back to the biblical story of Judas) to the Mafia and on into individual acts of betrayal, this thematic expression of deception adds a somber note that is punctuated with less humor than other novels in the Montalbano series.  And Montalbano is growing more weary, wondering how long he can continue to act as

"the poor puppeteer of a wretched puppet theater.  A puppeteer who struggled to bring off the performances as best he knew how. And for each new performance he managed to bring to a close, the struggle became greater, more wearisome."

But the good news for Montalbano fans is that there are a few more books waiting in the wings, so I wouldn't write Salvo off just yet.

I'm afraid I have to disagree with others who say that The Potter's Field is Camilleri's best Montalbano adventure so far, although I really enjoyed this book.  The characters didn't have their usual oomph (no glaring laughs coming from Catarella's antics, for example), the mystery's solution is a bit transparent, and actually, the book was a bit more on the serious side than I have come to expect from the author.  On the other hand, I follow the series more because of the character of Salvo Montalbano, who by now has become somewhat of an old friend.

Definitely recommended if you're following the series, but do start with book one and work your way through if you're considering this installment -- things will make so much more sense characterwise if you follow my advice on this one.

crime fiction from Italy

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Diamond Chariot, by Boris Akunin

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2011 (UK)
originally published as Алмазная Колесница, 2003
translated by Andrew Bromfield
502 pp. (hardback)

The Diamond Chariot is book number ten in Akunin's Erast Fandorin series, falling timewise in two different parts. According to a few articles I've read about this book, some people are under the impression that it may be the last in the series, but I seriously hope not. I hope we get at least to the Russian Revolution.

  Book one, "Dragonfly-Catcher", is set in Russia in 1905.  Historically, Russia and Japan are at war, a conflict which will ultimately lead to devastating results for the Romanov dynasty.  Rasputin has by now insinuated himself into the court of Nicholas II, and revolutionaries are busy at work trying to steer Russia in a new direction.  The action in book two, "Between the Lines," takes place in 1878, some ten years after Japan's Meiji Restoration, when the big empires, Russia included, are vying for domination of influence in Japan.   Serieswise, "Between the Lines" is part of a heretofore missing piece of Fandorin's story, falling between Murder on the Leviathan and The Death of Achilles.  Although the wide spread of years between the two books in The Diamond Chariot  may seem a bit odd at first, all will be made clear as the novel comes to an end.

And what a novel it is! In 1905, Erast Fandorin is once again back in Russia, where after the loss of a Russian battleship and its entire crew, he volunteers his services as a specialist on Japan.  The powers that be, however, have different plans for Fandorin, and he is taken on as a "hired gun"/consultant at the Department of Railway Gendarmarie and Police to develop a security system for Russia's railways, the vital supply link for the ongoing war against Japan. He is given great powers, and in his job, he facilitates a number of innovations to keep the railways safe.  But it seems that not everyone appreciates his work -- an attack on a train puts Fandorin on the trail of a deadly group of revolutionaries who will stop at nothing, not even the deaths of innocent people, to sabotage any hopes of a Russian victory over Japan.  As book one comes to a close, book two begins with Fandorin's arrival in Yokohama as a young, 22-year old diplomat attached to the Consul's office.  Fandorin, being who he is, finds himself embroiled in an attempt to foil the killing of  a Japanese minister, and soon he is involved in an adventure leading him from a local opium den to the beautiful mountain forests outside the city.  Along the way he meets up with a host of potential suspects and  has to deal with Yakuza, ninjas, former samurai, and a series of puzzles that must be solved in order to get to the mastermind behind the crime.  Here Fandorin will meet his future valet and friend Masa, as well as a most arresting woman who puts him under her powerful spell.

While book one is definitely connected to book two, book one is more like the series novels that Akunin's readers are used to by this point, while book two reaches out into much more depth than the usual Fandorin-to-the-rescue type plot.  If I may say so, book two constitutes more of a  "cracking good yarn," a solidly-plotted mystery  filled with intrigue, double crosses, and humor, while skirting the edges of the metaphysical.  But besides the mystery components in the two books, there is much here for readers of historical fiction as well.  For example, the author also allows the reader a peek at the contemporary political scene in Japan and  Russia, and in book two, delves into the imperialist attitudes of the more "modern" nations which were all hoping to gain a permanent foothold in Japan at the time, as well as the positive and negative effects of Japan's efforts at modernization after the end of the shogunate.  Book one also deals with growing disenchantment with the reign of Nicholas II, in a Russia that is "seriously ill," an empire which "had become an anachronism, a dinosaur with a body that was huge and a head that was too small, a creature that had outlived its time on earth." 

The entire Fandorin series is fun to read, and The Diamond Chariot is no exception.  As a whole, the novel works well, although the jump back so many years may confuse readers for a while until all is revealed.  I happen to love Japanese history (one of my specialty areas for graduate study), so much of what was happening in that setting was nothing new for me, but you don't have to be an expert to get what's going on here. Akunin does a good job of setting the scene in both books, but his expertise in Japanese history and culture really shines through in the second part.  The first part is good, more on par with the rest of the Fandorin series, but I was totally immersed in the second part, not wanting to let go of the book until I'd finished it, because of the difference in tone and because frankly, it was more like an old-time adventure/mystery story where I seriously couldn't imagine what was going to happen next.  And just when I thought myself quite clever for figuring out the evil mastermind in charge of everything that happened, I was a bit stunned that I was wrong.  At the same time, I was a bit relieved, because I hate when I guess the who. 

The Diamond Chariot  may be (imho) Akunin's best work in the series -- it's fun, with a good mystery and a conclusion that ties both parts of the book together in a kind of sad yet satisfying way.  My advice: start with the first book in the series, and do NOT make this your introduction to Erast Fandorin.  He's a character who grows as time goes on (and if you would take a peek at the pictures of the man on the Weidenfeld and Nicolson covers, he ages a bit in each one), and his backstory is just as important as the action in the book in front of you.  

I'm wondering whether or not, as some reviewers have  noted, The Diamond Chariot is really the last book in the series; Wikipedia shows that there are already others written but just not translated.  If anyone has any info, please let me know.

crime fiction from Russia